ARCHIVE EXHIBITIONS AT THE UNIVERSITY OF ROCHESTER, OCT. 3, 2011-JAN. 15, 2012
The year 2011 marks the hundredth anniversary of Hyam Plutzik’s birth. It is a date important for more than reasons of convention, the arbitrary fact that our calendar counts a convenient span of time since a certain event. The centenary of a poet can mark the moment of his passage from recent memory to literary tradition; it is a transition from one realm of history to another, more enduring. This event is dedicated to the hope that Plutzik’s legacy lives on in the succeeding ages.
An exhibition on Plutzik’s life and work was prepared by Jarold Ramsey of the University of Rochester English Department and displayed in the Department of Rare Books and Special Collections in 1982, not long after Mrs. Plutzik contributed the greater part of the materials now present in the Plutzik archive. The exhibition before you today is based in large part on this antecedent. It maintains much of Professor Ramsey’s commentary and organization, which, given the eloquence of its presentation and the sense given of the man’s life, contains little on which we need improve. A number of display cases unique to the new exhibition contain materials organized according to their similarity of theme rather than their biographical significance, and are intended by this juxtaposition to reveal some of the major ideas that drove Plutzik in his work—by no means can these displays represent the man’s work in all its complexity, but they can highlight portions of his thought which are inaccessible through the published sources alone.
The “Hyam Plutzik, Poet” exhibition has been prepared by Sergei Kriskov (UR 2012), and the adjoining display, “Rochester Students Read Plutzik,” by Sarah Young (UR 2013). The critical text on Plutzik’s Horatio is the work of Phillip A. Witte (UR 2010). The 1982 exhibition on which this one is based was prepared by Professor Jarold Ramsey. Those display cases which retain a significant amount of text from the original exhibition bear the initials JR in the lower left corner of the explanatory text.
The exhibit was mounted by Leah Hamilton, with signage by Melissa Mead; assistance in research was provided by Phyllis Andrews.
We gratefully acknowledge the help of Mrs. Tanya Plutzik, the Plutzik family, and the PG Family Foundation.
Curator, Hyam Plutzik: Poet
University of Rochester Class of 2012
Click here to read more about the exhibit.
ROCHESTER STUDENTS READ PLUTZIK
This two-case display, concluding the larger Hyam Plutzik: Poet exhibition, featured the text of several of Plutzik’s poems alongside personal responses–some in brief essay form, others using visual media–created by undergraduate students from various departments in the University. Here we include curator Sarah Young’s overview statement, the text of each poem included in the display, and the written responses accompanying each poem.
Hyam Plutzik drew from his own experiences a great deal in writing poetry. The political events and scientific breakthroughs of his day, his work as a professor, his family history, and firsthand observations of World War II all find a place in his work. This begs the question: how will his work stand up as readers become more and more removed from him by time? For this exhibit, students from all different academic backgrounds documented their reactions to various Plutzik poems and discovered that he speaks to their itch for inquiry. Plutzik covers such a vast array of topics with his body of work, and yet he has a startling ability to cut to the essential dilemma that inspires exploration of each field. It is no wonder Plutzik was driven to teach and write: students can look into his words and see fragments of their own endeavors and personal investigations reflected back at them.
Curator, “Students Read Plutzik”
UR Class of 2013
Responses to Because The Red Osier Dogwood
BECAUSE THE RED OSIER DOGWOOD
Class of 2013
Because the red osier dogwood
Is the winter lightning,
The retention of the prime fire
In the naked and forlorn season
When snow is winner
(For he flames quietly above the
In the moldy tunnel,
The eggs of the grasshopper awaiting
Into the lands of hay and the times
of the daisy,
The snake contorted in the gravel,
His brain suspended in thought
Over an abyss that summer will fill with murmuring
And frogs make laughable: the cricket-haunted time)—
I, seeing in the still red branches
The stubborn, unflinching fire of that time,
Will not believe the horror at the door, the snow-white worm
Gnawing at the edges of the mind,
The hissing tree when the sleet falls.
For because the red osier dogwood
Is the winter sentinel,
I am certain of the return of the moth
(Who was not destroyed when an August flame licked him),
And the cabbage butterfly, and all the families
Whom the sun fathers, in the cauldron of his mercy.
THE OLD WAR
No one cared for the iron sparrow
That fell from the sky that quiet day
With no bird’s voice, a mad beast’s bellow.
Sparrow, your wing was a broken scar
As you blundered into the mother-barley.
Sparrow, how many men did you bear?
“Ten good men, pilot and gunner—
Trapped in the whirlpool, held by no hands,
Twisting from truth with curse and prayer.
“Ten good men I bore in my belly—
Not as the mother-barley bears.
Ten good men I returned to her there.”
Thunder rolling over the barley!
Fire swarming high and higher!
Home again to the barley-mother—
Ten good sons, pilot and gunner,
Radioman and bombardier.
Responses to “The Old War”
Plutzik is able to describe such a horrifying and devastating event in such a beautiful, captivating way. I especially love that he refers to the ordeal as the returning of the men to the earth. There is a very interesting blend of the beauty and stillness of nature and the tragedy and harshness of war.
Class of 2013
I like the imagery in the poem. The way I saw it was that the “iron sparrow” was a war plane, but instead of being a symbol of spirituality, it brought death to the “ten good men” on it. I also notice the contrast in the poetry – truth and curse/prayer, mother and son, the freedom of a bird and the trapped men. This effect mirrors the duality of war – Plutzik himself enlisted in the air force after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, but is clear from his poems that he sees the devastating effects of it.
May Zhee Lim
Class of 2014
“The Old War” expresses sentiments of both WWII and the oldest war; that between man and nature. The “iron sparrow” returns its passengers to the “mother-barley”. The sparrow is deliberately characterized as a male entity–and therefore less connected with nature. As the plane lands, it destroys the feminine barley field: “thunder rolling…/fire swarming”. Within a world of masculine, high tech, dangerous warfare, there is no room for natural, feminine entities.
Class of 2013
ON HEARING THAT MY POEMS WERE BEING STUDIED IN A DISTANT PLACE
Responses to “On Hearing that My Poems…”
What strikes me most about this poem is the sense of vulnerability in the poet’s position when sharing his work. The final line in particular gives an image of the poet as almost bereft. Interestingly, however, it was the poet who opened his fist to let the words go, therefore retaining agency in the action. This poem made me realize that publishing is the act of giving others an ownership and control over what could be very personal to you. “Are words clothes or the putting off of clothes?” I found this line very striking. To me, the question asks whether in writing, authors use words as a communicative projection inserted between themselves and the world or whether instead they remove all barriers and render themselves vulnerable to very intimate and perhaps invasive scrutiny. The unanswered questions suggests to me that both are true: when the poet chooses to share, they are at once in control of the interaction and terrifyingly relinquishing control.
Class of 2013
One scale of judgment for art today seems to center on whether it is a divestment or construction of the artist and their ideas. The former is seen as true and good, the latter almost a manipulation. This is an oversimplification in part because the artist cannot totally control the message of their art. The audience may interpret a piece entirely differently than its creator intended. Plutzik’s poem deals with the anxiety of the knowledge that he does not have complete agency in the work he releases. He writes, “Out of my life I fashioned a fistful of words./When I opened my hand, they flew away.” His lines speak not only to this difficulty in art, but also to the fallibility all people experience at times in attempting to communicate themselves.
Class of 2012/Take 5
Mixed-media collage by Edith Hanson
Class of 2012
What are they mumbling about me there?
“Here,” they say, “he suffered; here was glad.”
Are words clothes or the putting off of clothes?
The scene is as follows: my book is open
On thirty desks; the teacher expounds my life.
Outside the window the Pacific roars like a lion,
Beside which my small words rise and fall.
“In this alliteration a tower crashed.”
Are words clothes or the putting off of clothes?
“Here, in the fisherman casting on the water,
He saw the end of the dreamer.
And in that image, death, naked.”
Out of my life I fashioned a fistful of words.
When I opened my hand, they flew away.
Mixed Media Collage by Edith Hanson, Class of 2012
Responses to “A Letter to Someone at Mt. Palomar”
There is little as confounding, as stirring, or as fixed in truth as a well-crafted metaphor. Plutzik calls it a “sudden awareness cast between nothing and nothing”: the jarring result of two separate entities drawn together. Metaphors inherently do not abide by the laws of logic or reason. “You” cannot be “a monstrous turkey”, logically speaking. “You” can be like “a monstrous turkey”, but where is the delight or the abandon in that? Plutzik finds simile to be “full of outrageous sounds”, but metaphor is “a god, a demon”. Metaphor is more powerful, but also more maddening.
Plutzik insists that the man looking to the stars for truth will only see himself, as in a mirror: a “protean gargoyle”. In the movement of the planets there is a mirror onto our own rituals, and we try to mirror these rituals to create realism in theater, and in the words of those plays we find a mirror onto ourselves: “To the world we have, within”. Perhaps it is in our nature to draw these metaphors, to look for the “dance” between people, objects, places, ideas.
What will astronomy tell us if the universe can only be defined by what is here on earth? Any discovery, a comet or a galaxy, is restricted by what Plutzik calls the “world-symbol”. The heavens are the earth. So is there a point?
What’s most intriguing is when Plutzik employs logical rhetoric: “Each fraction must be of this same deceptive stuff––/Or say that every atom of a symbol / Is of itself symbolic”. If we are “ever standing for something beyond [ourselves]”, constantly symbols for something else, then the concluding line of the poem (“I would be with you there”) takes on a deeper meaning.
Will Plutzik then explore the universe as an astronomer does, but with his words? Can the poet draw the same knowledge as this anonymous astronomer at Mt. Palomar merely by looking “within”, at himself as a fraction of the whole, as a piece of the universe? Perhaps he is made of that same stuff you glimpse in “the telescope on the hill”, but stuff only drawn out with the elusive crafting of metaphor.
Class of 2013
Plutzik’s poem, ‘A Letter to Someone at Mt. Palomar,’ strikes me as a work that should resonate as much today as it did when first penned. Reading through it, I became aware of the importance of each discipline contributing its strengths and recognizing its weaknesses: “A machine would be more explicit; / A formula have less of passion and nonsense; / Only a poem would give us this strange odor / Of death and the rose together.” Science can tell us much without necessarily invoking feeling, and poetry can move us and make us feel, maybe without telling us anything. However, there is still a strong crossover between science and poetry. As a student of science, I have seen in many things a degree of beauty and elegance that even the most sophisticated poems cannot embody, and yet also poems that have given me more insight into life than any experiment could have hoped to reveal.
Additionally, Plutzik made evident a notion that I think few have ever come to grasp, and that is our human place in the universe. It is interesting how cautiously and indirectly he broaches how insignificant many of our actions are, how we are unable to enact great change. Even a passing mention of free will offers a reflection on how ‘free’ it really is. As I look up at the sky, it becomes obvious that what we do here may show nothing of the ceremonial progression of the stars, nor display the effortless effervescence of nature, but our actions have instead the profound and unique ability to affect our fellow and our future man through science, poetry, and all acts of being human.
Class of 2012
A LETTER TO SOMEONE AT MT. PALOMAR
Though you reach forth past that hot pinwheel of Messier
And gobble, like a monstrous turkey with red eyes,
The farthest kernel of fire in our half-heaven,
Beyond Ophiuchus, you will never come to the end
Of this metaphor our world. Confusing mirrors
Are cocked at strategic angles along the walls
And ceiling of this immense translucent chamber
Where the suns follow their ceremonious paths
And we the littler ritual of breath: where no door
Or window exists, except (in its odd corner)
The panel through which the occasional dubious shape—
The serpent, the saint, or the ghost—enters quietly
To sour our theories and give us our dose of madness.
Consider then, to use some archaic counters,
This odor of death and the rose, as we walk the world
Sniffing the scenery. A machine would be more explicit;
A formula have less of passion and nonsense;
Only a poem would give us this strange odor
Of death and the rose together; a fragment only,
This sudden awareness cast between nothing and nothing;
A metaphor, this damned evasive face
That peeps wherever we look, a masked henchman,
A god, a demon, a stick or a stone. Enough
To spy on the desk our fragmentary symbol
Which we may observe, as archeologists
Worry a scrap of parchment, extrapolating
The shape of the whole work, and thence the heart
Of the artist himself: here that old unhappy romantic,
With a consciousness full of more shadow than light,
Obsessed by the moral sense that we call form,
And you logic or law. And what remains
Is, as it were, some epic simile
Full of outrageous sounds, tunes and posturings.
Since we cannot break this frame, so let us turn
To the world we have, within. If the sum of things
Is an apparition shaped in a mirror darkly,
Each fraction must be of this same deceptive stuff—
Or say that every atom of a symbol
Is of itself symbolic. Wise men would be
More numerous than ninnies; brooks run uphill;
And one and one be four, if parts outreached
A whole in level of reality,
Like a hat on a ghost. No, in this vast chamber
The suns follow their ceremonious paths;
And we our ritual of breath; and all between,
Their individual, formal dance. See here
Where action is accidental, most at random,
In a crowded street the automatic movement,
The hypnotized walk and talk, as if the world
Were bowing and scraping, acting a part by rote,
Like Hakagawa among his Titians, or Nanki-poo
And his stilted friends as the play opens. They rise,
Don clothes and wash their faces, work thus and thus,
Laugh at a fly, kiss in the evening, sleep,
Die as the script demands, in an etiquette
Of strictest but hidden command, though the will is free
As a butterfly in a gaudy flower-patch.
And ever standing for something beyond themselves,
They laugh and cry, say mother, pace their game
To the formalism of their inanimate comrades,
The house, the falling apple, the cigarette,
The clock, indeed the telescope on the hill—
All in vast conspiracy, except
The dubious shape that squirms through the crack in the wall….
So you will not pass the bounds of the world-symbol,
Nor come to the new Indies, and smell the spice
Of the secret mountain, and hear the tribes singing.
The crooked mirrors hanging upon that sky
Will give you yourself only, as a protean gargoyle,
Skinny or fat or horsefaced. But the hungering spirit
Will wash away the joke: the quest itself
Stand as our quintessential pattern and doom,
With its old brother constants death and pain.
Let the silent dome turn and the glass glitter,
And the nighttime sky be brilliant and clear. O study
Your subtle emulsions and your photographic plates,
The spectral and radiant records, dwarf and giant
(With other children reading a story). Peer forth
At the faint, livid spirals, wonderful
In the black cosmos. I would be with you there.
MR. POLLINGTON REMEMBERS A POET
Language is an inherently flawed way to express ourselves. It is metaphoric, rather than symbolic, each word filtered through our personal experiences. But because the written word is what we have, we make do with our “inept” system, cobbling together meaning out of “scraps and board, a nail, a snip of string.” In “Mr. Pollington Remembers a Poet,” I see a man trying to escape language by creating an objective notation for his inner experience. I can relate: I’ve always taken solace in the clarity of mathematics, which teaches you to value not only an idea’s quality, but also its grace of expression. A beautiful proof should make you lean back in your chair and sigh, its logic blooming in your mind, its idea suddenly clear.
Plutzik’s poet is searching for a proof for his experience, so that rather than breaking and reshaping our language to express himself (like a typical poet), he can evoke notation for his feelings, a “constant/Of pure numbers.” Unfortunately, waiting for perfection leaves him alone. I feel helpless when I think about him “stumbling,” “forgotten,” adrift in his obsession with finding a way to connect. He is a “shy person,” like me, over-thinking every sentence as he fights and perpetuates his inability to speak up. I realize that we can’t expect to speak in poetry, proofs, or notation; we rephrase and return to the same ideas, accepting mediocrity, trusting others. However, that won’t stop me from hoping silently—from feeling helpless—until I hear that a poet has gotten his notation right.
Class of 2012 (Take 5)
Weather bothered him, and the delicate muscular,
Neural and cortical events within him:
Fancies of the pressure of the air
Within his nostrils, the blood in the arteries.
He built his gauges out of an incantation
Of scraps and boards, a nail, a snip of string,
And then—at evening perhaps—by means of a mirror,
With glances over his shoulder for possible ghosts,
He read the remoter records of the machine
Of his own self, its shifting digestive balance
With minerals, oxygen and the protein complex,
The wavelengths of sound, light, and stellar synthesis.
The data became memories; they too were marked
On the crooked dials of his instruments—
While always, turning within, he sought a constant
Of pure numbers glowing like phosphorus.
He will be forgotten like his friends the Greeks,
Whose notation, too, was inept, and who had no mechanics
For their curious dreams. I still remember him
As he talked to himself stumbling across the yard.
Class of 2013
pencil and ink drawing